Exclusive Q&A with Gene Pao HBS '97

Join us for an event with Gene here!

Gene Pao HBS '97 is currently EVP, Strategy and Digital at Shout! Studios, an independent film and TV distributor, where he oversees overall company strategy, production, marketing, distribution, and digital operations. Over the past several years, Shout has expanded its business to indie film distributionhaving released a number new films this year including LINOLEUM (Jim Gaffigan), THE MAGIC FLUTE (F. Murray Abraham), WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? (Shazad Latif, Lily James, Emma Thompson), and hitting theaters on 9/29, THE KILL ROOM (Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Joe Manganiello). Prior to Shout, Gene spent 12 years at Disney, Fox, and NBCU in cable distribution, digital media, and live sports broadcasting/livestreaming. In 2022, Gene was named one of the Top 40 Most Important People In Streaming by Media Play News.

Q: We’re so excited to be hosting you for a virtual event later this week! Can you talk a little more about your experience in film distribution as EVP of Strategy and Digital at Shout! Studios? What does your day-to-day look like?

I have highly experienced and capable leaders running the departments under my purview—distribution, marketing and product management, production, creative srevices, operations, and digital. As a result, I see my role as “connecting the dots” and making sure that all parts of the organization are running well together. I spend most of my time in meetings, reviewing materials, and analyzing data, but there is also the fun stuff, such as evaluating the viability of new film and TV acquisitions and projects. I always look forward to the weekly “projection” meeting, where we talk about the merits of potential acquisitions and the revenue potential across various distribution platforms including streaming, television licensing, and 4K. We take into consideration the genre, cast, awards potential, and other factors that affect the revenue generating capability of a film or TV project. We also look at projects in all stages of developmentfrom scripts and TV pitches, to finished titles and classic film and TV.

Q: What about your background prior to your time at Shout? How does your time at Harvard Business School impact your work today, if at all?

Prior to Shout, I spent 12 years working at studios, 6 years at Disney/ESPN, 4 years at Fox, and 2 years at NBC Universal. I had the chance to work with incredible properties and amazing people, and my experiences there have set me up for success at Shout. At Disney, I played a major role in launching the first VOD and interactive television services. At Fox I got involved in live production of action sports events (surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, etc.). One of the most exciting (and exhausting) experiences is being in a production truck with a crew producing a live sports event for broadcast. Working in live production is not for the faint of heart! At NBCU, I worked at the Golf Channel and later with the show THE BIGGEST LOSER learning many of the ins and outs of producing world class sports and entertainment television programs.

I think Harvard has had a profound effect on my career in two primary ways: 1) the HBS experience gave me a new perspective on my professional career and expanded my career options, and 2) the HBS and Harvardwood network has opened up opportunities that I would not have otherwise had, and the relationships have given me the guidance and inspiration to do more.

Q: What’s your favorite part about your role at Shout, and what challenges you the most in your role?

The favorite part of working for Shout is being able to work at the intersection of business and “professionally produced” audiovisual media. I’ve grown to appreciate all types of video media, from TV to film, scripted to unscripted entertainment, sports, and news. I’ve come to appreciate the different delivery platforms such as streaming, television, theatrical, physical (DVD and Blu-ray), as well as the different business models from transaction, to subscription, to ad-supported, and the various flavors in-between. To me, the greatest challenge is how to take advantage of new technologies to develop programs and enhance the video viewing experience. A great example is the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 TURKEY DAY MARATHON, now in its tenth year, where we run a livestreaming event on interactive platforms such as YouTube and Twitch. We’re creating online viewing parties with over 100,000 MST3K fans and thousands interacting with each other through chat and other means.

Q: A lot is changing in the entertainment landscape, especially with the advent of AI. Do you see this impacting the distribution process or market at all, or have you already seen it starting to affect the business side of the industry? Similarly, have streaming services impacted viewer trends in any significant way with regards to distribution of content?

There is a lot of hype around AI and fear around its potential to eliminate jobs. AI will never replace humans—it will allow us to do our work better and help in many mundane ways to open up new revenue sources such as translation and subtitling. Streaming services have created new ways for content producers to reach their intended audiences. While business models are still being sorted out, the result will be a larger and more robust market for professionally produced video content.

Q: As of 2023, Shout! Factory controls the rights to many iconic brands in TV and film, such as MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, THE JOHNNY CARSON SHOW, ALF, POINT BREAK, LONESOME DOVE, Studio Ghibli, Aardman, and LAIKA titles, to name a few. What partnerships or collaborations have been instrumental in Shout! Studios' successful film and media distribution, and how do you evaluate potential distribution partners?

Shout has been successful because the company understands fandom and how to create new products and experiences that fans appreciate. Our ability to manage these franchises allow us to deliver more value to our licensors than other distributors.

Q: Several of the companies that Shout! maintains partnerships with focus on international media: for example, GKIDS, Eleven Arts, and Toei are all primarily Japanese media companies, namely anime, with Toei being based in Japan. ITV Studios and Aardman Animations are both British companies. Does the distribution strategy change at all depending on if the media is international, and are there specific strategies you employ that have been effective in reaching wider US audiences for content from places like the UK and Japan?

We’re finding that there is considerable interest among US viewers for foreign content, especially Japanese and British content. Japanese anime is extremely popular and we’re leading that market through our partnership with GKIDS. We also launched TokuSHOUTsu, a digital streaming branded service catering to tokusatsu fans (think GODZILLA and POWER RANGERS and you get the picture) and have close relationships with Toei and Tsuburaya. While we distribute a large number of UK-based ITV titles in the US (THE SAINT, THUNDERBIRDS, SPACE: 1999, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE PRISONER), we recently entered into an agreement with Aardman to distribute their content in the US, and we are looking to license plenty more.

Q: What do you believe sets Shout! Studios apart in the film and media distribution landscape, and how do you maintain a competitive edge?

Shout specializes in fandom around cult and classic TV and film. We trace our roots back to our music days and Rhino Records. Rhino was a pioneer in reissues—creating new versions of existing content to satisfy the needs of superfans. What started as music CDs has expanded to video, and across all media—physical, television, and digital.

Q: And finally, we’ll round it out with this: what do you like to do in your free time? What media have you consumed lately that’s really stood out to you?

I watch a lot of TV and digital video—across all genres and formats, from sports to news, to broadcast TV, YouTube, and Twitch. I like figuring out what makes a program work with its intended audience and how Shout can replicate that success with the content we control.

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